Trust in the Crypto-Drug Markets

By Juan Fernandez Ochoa
Team Assistant – IDPC

Despite perceived novelty, drugs have been online from the Internet’s very beginnings.  Anecdotal as it may be, it is widely understood that the very first transaction on ARPANET involved a small amount of cannabis. Ever since, cyberspace has provided fertile ground for all sorts of drug-related exchanges.

The appeal of the Internet for people who use drugs is evident. Faced with criminalisation, misinformation and stigma “offline”, the world-wide web can offer people who use drugs a space to interact in [relative] anonymity and safety. Online forums, such as Erowid, have provided a platform for people to share experiences and advice related to their drug use; fostering a sense of community that remains difficult to replicate “in real life”.

Silk Road, however, was a game changer. Launched in February 2011, the site was the first “archetypical” crypto-drug marketi. This “eBay for drugs” combined sophisticated encryption, communications and trust technologies to offer a broad range of [mostly illicit] products and services to users around the world. Cannabis, LSD, MDMA and other controlled substances were now just a click away… plus shipping & handling.

As it is often the case with drug-related developments in a context of prohibition, the initial response from public authorities ranged from cluelessness, to politically expedient outrage, to repression. Less than three years into the Silk Road experiment, and before the site’s impact on the market could be fully understood, the FBI shut it down. Its convicted mastermind, Ross Ulbricht, now serves a life sentence without parole in a federal prison in New York.

Mirroring the reality of “physical” markets, dismantling the Silk Road, and subsequent similar operations, have achieved anything but the intended effects. The original site might no longer exist, but dozens more have been created in its stead, with overall sales and reach continuing to grow at a gradual but unwavering pace.

Despite the available evidence, the role of public authorities in this evolving ecosystem continues to go unchecked. The UNGASS Outcome Document urges Member States to “strengthen law enforcement, criminal justice and legal responses, as well as international cooperation, to prevent and counter drug-related criminal activities using the Internet” (Art. 5 p). As if expecting different results from doing the same thing over and over again.

In stark contrast with a mainstream law enforcement discourse that perceives these online markets essentially as “a safe haven for criminals”, the burgeoning field of research on crypto-drug markets reveals a more nuanced landscape. An interdisciplinary research project on trust in these markets by the Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO)ii, for instance, can shed light on the short-sightedness of fundamentally repressive law enforcement interventions targeting crypto-drug markets.

Borrowing tools from linguistics, ethnography and computer science, the investigators have sifted through thousands of megabytes of messages from the now-defunct Silk Road[s] 1 and 2iii. The careful analysis of “collocates”iv has made it possible to produce a statistically meaningful snapshot of some of the prevailing discourses in these communications.

One strand of the project, led by Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus, revealed that trust among users was largely mediated by the exchange of personal experiences and other forms of knowledge, as well as the provision of advice on how to reduce potential harmful effects of drug use. User-based harm reduction strategies have been previously identified in crypto-drug markets and offline communitiesv. However, by focusing on the issue of trust, the authors centre and highlight the social bonds underpinning this “indigenous harm reduction”. Public authorities should consider the opportuneness of law enforcement responses that might entail weakening these community strategiesvi, favouring interventions that support the life and health of people who use drugs insteadvii.

A second project strand, headed by Martin Horton-Eddison, provides further evidence on the unintended, although not unexpected, consequences of “hard” law enforcement interventions. Using the same methodology and sources, the study suggests the takedown of Silk Road by the FBI acted as a starting gun for technological innovation in crypto-drug markets – resulting in even more difficulties for law enforcement to target the dark net. Specifically, this research captures the emergence of collective concerns about the “escrow” system.

Escrow has been an essential trait of crypto-drug markets, mitigating some of the multiple risks associated to online transactions. A number of these risks are related to the non-abidance by one of the parties to the terms of the sale/purchase. In the absence of formal institutions to act as arbiters, crypto-drug markets stepped in to fill the gap, offering a service that holds the funds until the other parties (in this case the buyer and seller) both agree to release them. When Silk Road 1 was seized, the FBI expropriated $3.6million from the system. Immediately after Silk Road 2 came to exist, users began to discuss ways to offset these potential losses. Intensified by major “exit scams”, these anxieties in the community seem to have led to the development of better alternatives, such as decentralised and multi-signature escrow systems. Law enforcement action, in short, made crypto-drug markets more resilient and possibly sustainable.

The insights from these studies strongly mirror certain realities of offline drug markets. The global drug control regime has a conspicuous track record of futile interventions that are not motivated, and in fact come at the expense of the wellbeing of people who use drugs. Crypto-drug markets, which are often framed as a threat in international policy debates, might actually offer an opportunity to provide remedial action. Public authorities should rethink their engagement with these spaces, capitalising on the self-regulatory and harm reduction practices deployed by these communities to positively influence, support and empower people who use drugs on- and offline.

This blog post draws on material presented at the Roundtable on Cyber-Trust in Crypto-Drug Markets: Implications for Policy and Policing (London, 21 February 2017), organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO), with support from the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and the Challenging Human Environments and Research Impact for a Sustainable and Healthy Digital Economy (CHERISH-DE) fund.


i Crypto-drug markets can be defined as “digital platforms that facilitate P2P trade of goods and services with the added features of recommendations systems and a reliance on cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. They utilize anonymizing Internet-routing technologies [….] to conceal the physical-[world] identity and location of users and create and open network for such interactions”.

ii Swansea University.

iii February 2011 – October 2013 and Nov. 2013 – November 2014, respectively.

iv Words that co-occur with statistical significance, denoting “features of the data that are both salient and peculiar”. Di Cristofaro, M. & Horton-Eddison, M. (2017) Corpus Linguistics on the Silk Road(s): The Escrow Example, GDPO Situation Analysis.

v See, for instance: Bancroft, A., & Reid, P. S. (2016). Concepts of illicit drug quality among darknet market users: Purity, embodied experience, craft and chemical knowledge. International Journal of Drug Policy, 35, 42–49; and Friedman, S. R., de Jong, W., Rossi, D., Touzé, G., Rockwell, R., Des Jarlais, D. C., & Elovich, R. (2007). Harm reduction theory: Users’ culture, micro-social indigenous harm reduction, and the self-organization and outside organizing of users’ groups. International Journal of Drug Policy, 18(2), 107–117.

vi For more on law enforcement and harm reduction, see, for instance: Monaghan, G., Bewley-Taylor, D., 2013. Modernising Drug Law Enforcement – Report 1 Police Support for Harm Reduction Policies and Practices Towards People Who Inject Drugs. International Drug Policy Consortium, London

vii See, for instance: Caudevilla, F. The Emergence of Deep Web Marketplaces: A Health Perspective. The Internet and Drugs Market (European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction). Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg; 2016.

Preparing for 2019: Drug Policy Objectives and Indicators, System-wide Coherence and the Sustainable Development Agenda

Preparing for 2019: Drug Policy Objectives and Indicators, System-wide Coherence and the Sustainable Development Agenda

Side event held at the 60th Commission on Narcotic Drugs offers insights into how drug policy indicators could aid in achieving the sustainable development agenda.

Nazlee Maghsoudi, Knowledge Translation Manager at the ICSDP

Click here to visit the CND Blog’s live reporting from this side event.

With the UNGASS on the World Drug Problem now a year behind us, member states are looking towards the next international drug policy milestone, a High Level Ministerial Meeting in 2019. Simultaneously, member states are over a year into efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of global targets to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity by 2030. Given increasing recognition that the impacts of global drug policy are intrinsically linked to a number of SDGs, the Government of Switzerland, Health Poverty Action (HPA), International Drug Policy Consortium, Centro De Estudios Legales Y Sociales (CELS), Social Science Research Council, Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO), and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP) came together at the 60th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to explore how drug policy indicators could aid member states in more effectively achieving the sustainable development agenda.

Natasha Horsfield, Policy & Advocacy Officer from HPA, outlined crucial ways in which drugs and drug policy interact with several of the SDGs, and suggested that metrics for measuring how drug policies are contributing to the SDGs should be prioritized in preparations for 2019. Speaking about goal 1 on poverty, goal 2 on food security, and goal 5 on gender equality, Ms. Horsfield explained that marginalization and inequality are important elements in the drug trade, with poverty and food insecurity a frequent factor in involvement in illicit drug markets, and women particularly becoming involved as drug couriers because of their gendered social and economic vulnerabilities. Gender inequality is reflected in the disproportionate and alarming increase in the incarceration of women for minor drugs offences. Given these and other intersections between drug policy and the SDGs, the clear, measurable, and internationally agreed framework of targets and indicators contained within the sustainable development agenda could be adapted to measure drug policy outcomes. For example, new indicators could be adopted at national level under goal 5 to measure women and girls involved in the drug trade or incarcerated for drug crimes. Ms. Horsfield also stressed that the High Level Ministerial Meeting in 2019 presents an opportune moment to align the timeline for the next drug policy framework with the 2030 deadline for implementing the SDGs.

Elaborating on Ms. Horsfield’s remarks, Luciana Pol, Senior Fellow in Security Policy & Human Rights from CELS, pointed to improvements that could be made to drug policy indicators to support the achievement of SDG 5 on gender equality. Ms. Pol noted that the Special Rapporteur on violence against women has identified anti-drug policies specifically as a leading cause of the rising rates of incarceration of women globally, and data demonstrates that a portion of women incarcerated for drug offences are coerced into trafficking and others engage as a result of lacking viable economic opportunities. Ms. Pol described concrete ways to improve the quality of data on how drug policies impact women. First, prison data should have a gender perspective by including, for example, information on the amount of pregnant women, of children incarcerated with their mothers, and access to health services for these groups. Second, since laws in many countries don’t distinguish between different types of drug offences, small and large scale trafficking are categorized together. Differentiating between the conduct for which they are incarcerated and the roles women play will improve our understanding of incarcerated populations. Ms. Pol reminded the audience that improving our understanding of how drug policies impact women is not only essential to ensuring the achievement of SDG 5, but is also a central component of last year’s CND resolution 59/5. Ms. Pol therefore called on member states to take these and other concrete steps to mainstream a gender perspective in their collection of data relevant to drugs and drug policy, and urged UN agencies to guide member states in this process of broadening and expanding their drug policy metrics.
As a contributor on law enforcement indicators to the World Drug Report, Christian Schneider, Strategic Analyst at the Federal Office of Police in Bern, Switzerland, shared his firsthand knowledge that the incomplete nature of data on drug markets can prohibit efforts to derive meaningful policy recommendations. In addition to communicating uncertainties, Mr. Schneider proposed that gaps in the data could be addressed by adopting a more comprehensive set of indicators. Sharing technical recommendations for implementing Mr. Schneider’s suggestion, Dave Bewley-Taylor, Director of GDPO, focused on how a review of the Annual Report Questionnaires (ARQs) could support the achievement of the SDGs by aligning drug policy metrics with the sustainable development agenda. According to Prof. Bewley-Taylor, despite the limitations of self-reporting, the ARQs are a useful mechanism through which member states report on their efforts to address the world drug problem. As the nature of the world drug problem has evolved, however, there have been increasing gaps in the data collected by the ARQs. This recently came into sharp focus, as the UNGASS Outcome Document included an operational recommendation to use relevant human development indicators in alignment with the SDGs to increase understanding and improve impact assessments. Within this context, Prof. Bewley-Taylor stressed that there is a clear need to review the structure and questions of the ARQs to bring them into alignment with the SDGs by incorporating indicators related to human rights, public health, and human security. Such a review could be conducted through an interagency expert group established by the Statistical Commission, which has already begun considering these issues.

Discussions on drug policy indicators and their relationship to the sustainable development agenda are undoubtedly of utmost importance at the CND, and in other forums, such as the meeting of the high-level political forum on sustainable development in July 2017. Yet, much more than discussion is needed. As Ms. Horsfield said, advancing past this critical juncture will require political will from member states beyond simply reaffirming their commitment to SDGs, but towards deemphasizing drug control efforts that undermine the SDGs and funding those that contribute positively to their achievement. Aligning drug policy metrics with the SDGs is an important step in this direction.

Click here to visit the CND Blog’s live reporting from this side event.

Why is coca production on the rise in Colombia?

After countless reforms and billions of investment eradicating coca cultivation is still a great challenge for Colombia.

Ross Eventon, GDPO

Early March, 2017: The United States government and the United Nations announce large increases in the amount of coca being cultivated in Colombia.

The head of the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs flies to Colombia and meets the President. The increase is due to the end of aerial fumigation operations, he says, but he also assures the press that he would not be asking the government to restart that policy….
Continue reading full open access article here:

View from the Ground – Harm reduction, drug policy and the law in the Maghreb: focus on Morocco and Algeria

View from the Ground – Harm reduction, drug policy and the law in the Maghreb: focus on Morocco and Algeria

Khalid Tinasti, Geneva
Global Drug Policy Observatory, Swansea University
October 2016

As WordPress doesn’t allow referencing, full PDF with references available here: khalid_blog-maghreb-drug-policy_final


The Maghreb countries, part of the Arab Maghreb Union, are Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia and form the largest part of North Africa. These countries are currently in the centre of the boiling issues of the world including terrorism, human trafficking and drug trafficking. These countries are large consumers and producers of plant-based and synthetic l psychotropic substances, Morocco being the largest cannabis producer in the world in 2014. But when it comes to discussing the issue of drug use, the legal response to it, and its impact on society, the debate focuses on ideological issues of morality and the rejection of illicit drugs, as data on the prevalence of drug use and the patterns of the use in these countries are missing.

The Maghreb is also part of the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), which is one of the two regions in the world in which new HIV infections are increasing (with Eastern Europe and Central Asia) and largely driven by drug injection. In 2014, the region has seen HIV infections related to drug injection represent 28% of all new infections, and this represents a minimum since it is based only on often incomplete data submitted by governments. The region is also home to an estimated 630,000 people who inject drugs. This blog will analyze the current situation in two major countries of the region, Algeria and Morocco, which have chosen different approaches to drugs, and compare the outcomes of their policy choices. The blog will finally highlight the current drug policy reform discussions in both countries.

The current official drug prevalence:

Morocco is the country with the most widely available data in the region, with an estimated injecting population of 3000 to 4000 according to the Ministry of Health. Drug injection is concentrated in the North and East of the country, in the transit regions that export cannabis to Algeria and Spain, and import amphetamines (mainly from Algeria) and heroin (mainly from Spain). The country is also the first Arab country, and the second in Africa, to have introduced methadone substitution therapy in six centers in 2011. Furthermore, it is among the two only countries that have a national harm reduction policy in the Arab world, the other being Lebanon. The prevalence of HIV in the general population is of 0.14% (0.1%-0.2%), and mainly concentrated among key affected populations, with people who inject drugs (PWID) representing 10.17% of this total. The country has introduced methadone therapy in prisons as a pilot project , but the author has been informed that the experiment will be extended to five penitentiary centers throughout the country in the coming months.

In Algeria, the situation of PWID or people who use drugs without injection is undocumented. There is no official data on the prevalence of drug use in the country, but it is known that cannabis is the most widely used substance in the country and its use has doubled in the course of two years, between 2012 and 2014. PWID living with HIV represents 1.1% of those tested in 2014, for a prevalence rate among the general population of less than 0.1%. In 2014, a study by the National Office on Drugs and Addiction (Office national de lutte contre la drogue et la toxicomanie) showed that the number of people who use drugs (PWUD) is 250.000, while simultaneously independent research by the FOREM (Fondation nationale pour la promotion de la santé et le développement de la recherché), a non-governmental organization, estimated PWUD to be one million people in the country. A 2006 study on the number of PWID in developing countries reveals that Algeria is the second highest burden country in all North Africa following Egypt, with a number of PWID reaching 40,961.

The two neighboring countries, the largest demographically in the region, hegemons politically and dynamic economically, are at odds largely due to their conflict on the Western Sahara, Morocco claiming its territorial integrity includes the said territory, while Algeria hosts and supports, diplomatically and financially, the separatists. The conflicting relationship between the two countries is also represented in the cooperation against drug trafficking, where they accuse each other of knowingly enriching their respective black markets of illicit drugs. Publicly and through official press conferences, Algeria accuses Morocco of the impact of the large amounts of cannabis being smuggled by the Rif traffickers, while Morocco reminds Algeria that it is one of the largest producers of psychotropic substances that flood the Moroccan black market.

The narcotic laws and drug use:

The laws in Algeria and Morocco punishing drug use and possession are harsh, as they are in the rest of the African and MENA regions. The Algerian law (Law No. 04-18 of 25 December 2004) imposes incarceration between two months to two years in addition to a fine from five to fifty thousand Dinars (fifty to five hundred US dollars) or one of the two sentences for personal use or possession. For a similar offence, a Moroccan convict will face imprisonment of between two months and one year in addition to a fine (Dahir No. 1-73-282 of 21 May 1974), or one of the two sentences. Meanwhile, the Moroccan law remains the least harsh policy in the region. In 2014, 31% of the cases treated by tribunals in the country were related to illicit drugs.

The Algerian narcotics law differs highly from its Moroccan counterpart since it gives precedence to prevention over punishment, as it states preventive and treatment measures before penal judgments. It makes treatment the basis of the legal response to drug use, and sanctions are not enforced if and until the treatment is refused. In addition, returning to treatment when necessary is not prevented even in cases where the treatment decision was previously refused (Article 9 of the law). Sanctions on drug consumption have been reduced for the following reasons: First, punishment for possession or consumption would be imprisonment of between two months and two years. This is a lighter sentence than lockup or hard labor and indicates that drug consumption or possession for personal consumption is considered a misdemeanor rather than a felony; second, the law authorizes the judge to choose between imprisonment and a fine and does not force him to combine the two and third, the judge’s authority to determine the sanction provides some autonomy as to whether imprisonment or a fine is chosen, as there are large differences between the minimum and the maximum limits.

These parameters of the law, that are presented as a prioritization of public health over punishment in drug policy, are still problematic as they allow for the institutionalization of mandatory treatment. According to Article 7 of the law, the examining magistrate or juvenile judge may order detoxification, accompanied by medical surveillance and rehabilitation for “any drug user whose condition requires these measures”. The court’s judicial authority, in this case the specialized judicial authority, may also rule exemption from sanctions (Article 8). According to Article 9, incarceration and fines shall only be applied to anyone who refrains from executing the decision to undergo detoxification. The law as it is today gives judges the power to decide on medical conditions and how they should be treated. Despite every effort, it is still difficult to find data on how many people are diverted from tribunals to treatment centers in both countries.

The findings of on-the-ground research:

To face this complex situation, in countries that produce large quantities of illicit drugs, consume heavily and carry the burden of epidemics related to drug injection, non-governmental organizations on the ground have started researching the situation and gathering evidence. The Association de Lutte contre le Sida (ALCS) in Morocco has launched on-the-ground research as early as 1996 in the Northern provinces of the country to map the injection drug use, and respond to the HIV situation. At the time, drug injection has been found to be limited. A 2003 national survey on mental health and addiction, with a sample of 6000 people over 15 years old, has shown that cannabis is the most widely used substance with a prevalence rate of 3.94%, the age of first use was decreasing, and the prevalence of heroin was of 0.02%. In 2006, with the changing nature of drug use and the spread of HIV through drug injection as transmission mode, the Ministry of Health launched situational studies on drug injection, in order to establish the first harm reduction national plan. The first action was to launch needle and syringe programmes, followed by methadone treatment. The harm reduction programme includes several advances, such as the inclusion of civil society in the delivery of services, the dispensing of harm reduction training, and the delivery of services during the night hours. For instance, the ALCS delivers through its mobile unit a needle exchange programme in three cities in the Rif. Nevertheless, the programme faces tremendous challenges, be it within the harsh legal environment or through the obstacles for the scaling up the services delivery.

In Algeria, and as stated earlier, data and monitoring of current drug policies is missing. The Association de Protection Contre le Sida (APCS) has reached out to the Moroccan ALCS to conduct a rapid diagnostic mission to map the drug situation in the capital city Algiers. For this research, 43 PWUD were interviewed, of which 5 were women, 62% were students or unemployed at the time of the qualitative interview, and represented 6 communes of the capital city. The findings concluded that outside of the squats in the Blida neighborhood, drug injection remains a personal activity, that it concerns all ages and all socio-professional categories of society. Regarding PWID, 70% injected Subutex (buprenorphine) and 30% heroin, and poly-consumption was the most shared behavior of the study participants (100%). 33% of those interviewed were incarcerated at some point in their lives, and up to 5 times for some, and for over 25% the imprisonment resulted of a simple possession offence. The study finally has shown that PWID do not access the services they need, since pharmacists refuse to sell them clean syringes, increase substantially their price, or do not have a stock in remote areas. Finally, only the national hospital of Blida offers rehabilitation and abstinence based programmes which are limited in number and do not respond to the needs of PWID.

This first study highlights the situation in Algiers, and is being currently used to advocate for drug policy and harm reduction reform with the Algerian authorities and civil society. In a consultation entitled “the role of civil society in harm reduction” held in Algiers on September 26-27, 2016 attended by the author, the representative of the Office national de lutte contre la drogue et la toxicomanie, the drug control organ under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, announced that the country will open the first methadone induction service in Algiers in the coming months. No details were given. Moreover, NGOs collaboration between the two countries is in vivid contrast with the non-cooperation of the states on the drugs issue.


Algeria and Morocco share the same languages (Berber and Arabic), similar colonial historical patterns, and the longest border for both countries. They also share the drug production, use and trafficking since they both produce large amounts of plant-based (Morocco) or manufactured (Algeria) illicit drugs; they share the same trafficking routes from the Sahara or from the Middle East towards Europe; and cannabis is the most used substance in both countries. Nevertheless, the countries have taken different public policies to respond to drugs. Morocco, a traditional and large producer of cannabis, faced with a heroin crisis in the 2000s developed the first harm reduction strategy in North Africa. Algeria, where heroin injection has not been seen as a health crisis until recently, has focused its efforts on the rehabilitation of PWUD.

khalid_blog-maghreb-drug-policy_finalAfter years of designing drug policies, mainly focused on eliminating drugs and curbing the HIV infections among PWID, drug policy reform is becoming a mainstream discussion in Morocco. The political parties PAM and Al Istiqlal have introduced parliamentary bills to legalize the medical and industrial use of cannabiskhalid_blog-maghreb-drug-policy_final. In Algeria, the debate still focuses on the issues related to trafficking and illicit production, and the announcement of a methadone service has been recurrent since 2015 without details on the location or the conditions required to enroll PWID in need of this service.

Reagan’s Militarisation of the ‘War on Drugs’

Emily Crick, Bristol, UK

Amidst current debates about the inadequacies and damaging ‘unintended consequences’ of policies and programmes that privilege harsh law enforcement and punishment, what has become known as the ‘war on drugs’, it is instructive to reflect upon the history of this long dominant policy approach.  Here Emily Crick, PhD student at Bristol University and GDPO Research Associate draws on her doctoral research to discuss US President Ronald Reagan’s engagement with the issue in the 1980s.

US President Richard Nixon is often credited with launching the ‘War on Drugs’, but my research suggests that in fact it was the Reagan administration, with support from Nancy Reagan, who really shaped and militarised the ‘War on Drugs’ as we know it now.  The Reagan era introduced and propagated across the world a virulently prohibitionist and highly militarised form of international drug control.

Under the Reagan administration:

  • the military was encouraged to get involved in drug law enforcement
  • mandatory minimum sentences were increased for drug offences – including the death penalty for ‘drug kingpins’
  • random drug testing was normalised for US federal employees
  • asset seizure laws were strengthened in America and then enshrined into international drug control policy through the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances
  • the policy of ‘certification’ was introduced to compel countries to commit to US drug control initiatives

Nancy Reagan also contributed to the staunchly prohibitionist atmosphere with her ‘Just Say No’ campaign that reduced drug use to a simple question of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and shifted funding away from drug treatment towards abstinence-based programmes.

Under the Reagan administration the ‘war on drugs’ was intensified domestically and internationally.  Within the US, there were a number of legal changes that created a much harsher environment for those involved in the drug trade and contributed to a huge increase in prison populations (see fig.1) .

  • The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 eliminated parole for most federal prisoners.
  • The Comprehensive Crime Control Act (1984) enshrined ‘civil forfeiture’ into law that allowed assets to be confiscated even before charges had been brought.  It also allowed for enforcement agencies, both federal and local, to share the proceeds.
  • The Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986) introduced increased mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences
  • Executive Order 12564 (1986) established random drug testing for Federal employees
  • Drug Abuse Act of 1988 introduced the death penalty for ‘drug king pins’


Fig. 1.

Some opposed these policies at the time.  A Washington Post editorial argued that the best way to deal with ‘the drug problem’ was education and treatment and that federal workplace testing, military involvement in civilian law enforcement and mandatory minimum sentences undermined civil liberties.  The stringent asset forfeiture and seizure laws, many argued, undermined the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution that prevented US citizens from being searched without ‘probable cause’.

At the same time as the criminal code was being tightened up, Nancy Reagan was promoting her ‘Just Say No’.  This involved an overly simplistic message that didn’t take into account the multitude of reasons why people use drugs problematically.  However, the ‘Just Say No’ campaign joined with the Parent Power movement of the 1970s to create a strong anti-drug message that contributed to the zero-tolerance, abstinence-based perspective on drugs.  In 1988 Nancy attempted to internationalise her message when she became the first US First Lady to address the UN General Assembly.   She gave a speech promoting the ‘Just Say No’ campaign and calling for a bigger focus on demand-control.

Internationally, drug trafficking was being seen as a threat as well.  During the 1980’s a new threat was articulated – the narco-terrorist.  It was first used by Peruvian president Fernando Belaunde Terry in 1983 in response to the rise of the Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path.  Both Reagan and later Bush Snr. used the ‘narco-terror’ threat as cover for Anti-Sandinista policies in Central America.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 221 (NSDD-221) that set out how the military and intelligence communities should participate in the ‘War on Drugs’.  It stated that, “Whilst the domestic effects of drugs are a serious societal problem for the United States … the national security threat posed by the drug trade is particularly serious outside US borders.  Of primary concern are those nations with a flourishing narcotics industry, where a combination of international criminal organizations, rural insurgents, and urban terrorists can undermine the stability of local the government; corrupt efforts to curb drug production; and distort the public perception of the narcotics issue in such a way that it becomes part of the anti-US or anti-western debate.”  NSDD-221 not only linked domestic drug use and international drug trafficking together as threats to the US, but also situated global drug control within the geo-political context of the Cold War.  It named three countries – Bulgaria, Cuba and Nicaragua (all Soviet allies) – as countries that were using drug trafficking for “financial and political reasons” to undermine the US.  This was despite the fact that these countries were low down on the list of nations that had a well-developed illicit drug trade.

Also in 1986, the Reagan’s made a series of highly emotive statements on drugs.  In May 1986 Ronald Reagan claimed that “… illegal drugs were every bit as much of a threat to the United States as enemy planes and missiles”.  And in September of that year he argued that, “Drugs are menacing our society.  They’re threatening our values and undercutting our institutions.  They’re killing our children.”

Nancy Reagan, in a speech with her husband from the White House in 1986, stated, “Today there’s a drug and alcohol abuse epidemic in this country, and no one is safe from it – not you, not me, and certainly not our children, because this epidemic has their names written on it….. It concerns all of us because of the way it tears at our lives and because it’s aimed at destroying the brightness and life of the sons and daughters of the United States.”

When announcing NSDD-221, Vice President George Bush went further are maintained that “when you buy drugs you can also very well be subsidizing terrorist activities overseas.”  These statements emphasise the Reagan administration’s view that drugs, drugs users and drug traffickers were a threat to both US national security and US societal security.  By continuously linking together the threat of drugs and drug trafficking with the protection of the ‘family’ and ‘our children’, this created a powerful image.

Since 1981, when Reagan amended the Posse Comitatus Act that had prevented that military from participating in civil law enforcement, and therefore counter-narcotics operations, there had been a debate about the role the military should play in the ‘War on Drugs: should they simply contribute equipment, or should they carry out active participation including having the power of arrest?

There were long-standing tensions between the Pentagon, the Reagan administration and Congress about the role of the military in drug law enforcement, but nevertheless the militarisation of the ‘War on Drugs’ had begun.  When in 1985 the House of Representatives proposed giving the military powers of arrest and seizure for the second time, Defense Secretary Weinberger strongly opposed this arguing that, “…reliance on military forces to accomplish civilian tasks is detrimental to both military readiness and the democratic process…. We strongly oppose the extension of civilian police powers to our military forces.”  And when, in 1988, the issue was raised again by Congress, Weinberger, by this point no longer Secretary of Defense, came out against the proposals even more forcefully, stating, “Calling for the use of the government’s full military resources to put a stop to the drug trade makes for hot exciting rhetoric.  But responding to those calls would make for terrible national security policy, poor politics and guaranteed failure in the campaign against drugs.”

This advice was completely disregarded.  And in 1989 when, shortly after coming to power, the new President Bush Snr.  invaded Panama to arrest General Noriega – a one-time ally of the US – on drugs charges, it was agreed that restrictions on the military’s powers of arrest and seizure only applied within the US.

Whilst the military were wary of committing themselves to involvement in the ‘war on drugs’, the intelligence agencies were much keener to get involved.  Nixon had ordered the CIA to participate in fighting drug traffickers in 1972 and Reagan mandated that the FBI get on-board in 1981.  The CIA analysed the threats caused by the illicit drug trade in the 1980s and produced a National Intelligence Estimate in 1985 that stated, “drug trafficking that can threaten the integrity of other democratic nations…. This Estimate does underscore the manner and degree to which drug trafficking can undermine countries important to the United States, and it defines the interrelationship between drug trafficking and other issues significant to our national interest such as insurgency and terrorism.”  National Security Decision Directive -221 was based on this National Intelligence Estimate.

Shortly after NSDD-221 was signed, the US carried out Operation Blast Furnace in Bolivia.  The US sent six Black Hawk helicopters and 160 military personnel into Bolivia to eliminate cocaine processing labs.  Even at the time, they recognised that this operation would only have a short-term effect on cocaine prices and availability.  In the end, though, the operation focussed mostly on eradicating coca rather than closing down the labs and this caused a lot of animosity amongst the locals.

In November 1986 the US called together their ambassadors from drug producing and transit countries – as well as some allies in the war on drugs – and told them to impress upon their host nations how much importance the US attaches to fighting the drug war.  Another aspect of the internationalisation of the US ‘war on drugs’ was the policy of ‘certification’.  This policy was created though the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and 1988 amendment to The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.  The amendment stated that, “International narcotics trafficking poses an unparalleled transnational threat in today’s world, and its suppression is among the most important foreign policy objectives of the United States….”   In order to make producer and transit countries conform, certification required the US president to certify that specified drug production and transit nations were “co-operating fully” with the United States in a range of stipulated counter-narcotics measures.  If countries were deemed not to be co-operating, they could face the suspension of US aid and US opposition to loans from regional and multilateral development banks such as the World Bank and the IMF.

In the late 1980s, it was agreed that there was a need for a new UN drug convention – the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.  The US was closely involved in drafting this convention.  It was argued that the country had considerable “experience in developing effective law enforcement tools” against traffickers.  And therefore incorporated into the treaty US-style law enforcement measures such as asset seizures, “special investigative techniques such as electronic surveillance … and undercover operations…”  The US also used the 1988 Convention legitimise the certification process: it called for each country to state how far they had “met the goals and objectives of the [1988 Convention]”.  The 1988 Convention can be seen as the internationalisation of yet more flawed US approaches to the drugs trade and organised crime.

Reagan built upon the ‘War on Drugs’ discourse that had been created by Nixon but he went much further.  Reagan militarised the ‘War on Drugs’ and then internationalised these aggressively prohibitionist policies.  Later US presidents only increased this direction.  This can be seen with Clinton’s Plan Colombia and George Bush Jnr.’s merging of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.   The US has also influenced the direction of international drug control through policies enshrined in the 1988 UN Convention and through joint counter-narcotics operations, massive funding and support for training programmes.  The highly militarised and punitive ‘war on drugs’ that we continue to see today had begun.

This blog has been adapted from a presentation given at the UCL Mexico Summit on June 13th 2016.

GDPO Involved in Research into Trust in Crypto-drug Markets

The GDPO was recently part of a successful interdisciplinary application to the CHERISH-DE (Challenging Human Environments and Research Impact for a Sustainable and Healthy Digital Economy) Escalator Fund.  The pilot project, (Principal Investigator: Prof Nuria Lorenzo-Dus (Arts and Humanities), Co-Investigators: Prof David Bewley-Taylor, (Arts and Humanities), Dr Bob Laramee (Computer Science), Dr Matteo Di Cristofaro (Arts and Humanities), is part of the ongoing process of developing the Observatory into a hub for research into crypto-drug markets

Specifically, this project addresses two themes of CHERISH-DE: health and social care and safety and security. The project maximises impact of the unique Challenging Human Environment DE work grown within Swansea, acts as a beacon for an innovative impact-led way of working and develops a generation of ambassadors who will be the sustaining dynamic of DE working. The objectives pursued by this project are: first, to generate the first large-scale communicative and social profiling of transactional behaviour in crypto-drug markets and secondly, to inform policy- making relating to better understanding of drivers of illicit behaviours and effectiveness of law enforcements approaches to crypto-drug market disruptions.

The rationale of this research is the increasing number of drug consumers that are purchasing a variety of psychoactive substances via crypto-drug markets that are estimated to generate US$100 million worth of annual sales worldwide. This proposal takes advantage of improved accessibility of hitherto untapped digital dataset of Dark Net transactions, conducted within approximately 89 crypto-drug markets, including more than 37 forums in which issues of trust are implicitly and explicitly discussed by drug users and sellers.

This research will be the first to integrate methods and theories from: Linguistics, Public Policy, Visual Analytics and Data Visualisation. By undertaking the first interdisciplinary analysis of transactional behaviour in crypto-drug markets, the research will generate findings of direct relevance to units within International Organizations and governments responsible for countering crypto- drug markets.

The significant outcomes of this project are: two journal articles to be submitted, two conference presentations and a networking event with key stakeholders.

The total work plan will take over four months and the total project cost will be £8497.80

ICSDP (re)Blog: Scientific Experts Launch Open Letter on Need for New Metrics to Evaluate Drug Policy

Reblog from:

On January 21, 2016, more than eighty representatives from Member States, UN agencies, and civil society organizations gathered for the launch of a scientific open letter on the path forward for drug policy evaluation.


Titled, “Identifying Common Ground for UNGASS 2016: Rethinking Metrics to Evaluate Drug Policy,” the event hosted by the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP) at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City provided valuable expertise and guidance to Member States and UN agencies in the lead up to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) in April 2016.

The ICSDP’s open letter calls for a reprioritization of the metrics used to evaluate illicit drug policy. Co-authored by ten global scientific leaders, the open letter uses decades of scientific research to demonstrate that the small number of indicators currently prioritized by the vast majority of UN agencies and Member States – such as levels of illicit drug use and availability – fail to capture the complex ways that drug policy can impact communities. The open letter therefore argues for the adoption of indicators in the areas of health, peace and security, development, and human rights in order to provide a broader and more granular understanding of drug policy impacts. This, in turn, would equip policymakers with the data required to optimize outcomes and substantively control the world drug problem.

Screen_Shot_2016-02-23_at_5.03.55_PM.pngDr. Dan Werb, Director of the ICSDP, focused his presentation on the development challenges that have undermined the successful implementation of Mexico’s drug policy reform. In 2009, Mexico decriminalized the possession and use of small amounts of drugs and legislated a system of diversion that would see drug dependent individuals triaged into drug treatment rather than prison. Despite one of the most progressive drug policies on the books, research measuring the effectiveness of the policy reform in Tijuana – conducted by Dr. Werb and colleagues at the University of California, San Diego – indicates that implementation has fallen short of expectations, as the number of arrests for drug possession in Tijuana have continued to rise despite the policy of decriminalization. According to Dr. Werb, this can be at least partially attributed to the lack of capacity of the Mexican state to provide members of law enforcement with adequate levels of pay, as well as training in the basic tenets of the drug policy reform. Problematically, although a cornerstone of the drug policy reform relies on increased coverage and accessibility of evidence-based addiction treatment, such as methadone maintenance therapy (MMT), resource constraints have resulted in a lack of adequate treatment scale up. Dr. Werb concluded his presentation by emphasizing that, as the Mexican case study demonstrates, a lack of resource commitment by Member States can seriously undermine drug policy goals and development indicators must therefore be captured in drug policy evaluations.

According to Dr. Kanna Hayashi, Research Scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, evaluating levels of coverage for health services would be incomplete without also including indicators to assess quality, such as in the context of treatment for substance use disorders. Describing her research among people who inject drugs in Bangkok, Thailand, Dr. Kayashi noted that although Thailand added MMT to their universal health coverage in 2008, thereby increasing the accessibility of this health service, negative attitudes towards MMT by healthcare providers has led to suboptimal quality and rollout of this treatment modality. Research from 2011 found that the average dosage of methadone in Thailand was 30 milligrams, falling far below the 60-120 milligrams range recommended by the World Health Organization. As a result, 16% of those accessing MMT were also obtaining methadone illicitly and 19% reported syringe sharing. Dr. Hayashi stressed that if MMT were provided appropriately, these outcomes – which undermine efforts to reduce rates of drug dependence and to control the HIV epidemic – could have been avoided. The presence of compulsory drug detention centres is also an issue of suboptimal quality in treatments for substance use disorders. Research from 2011 indicates that, despite a lack of evidence that compulsory treatment for addiction is effective in treating drug dependence, 60% of people accessing drug treatment in Thailand were in compulsory treatment. Hence, as Dr. Hayashi’s presentation outlined, evaluations that do not include assessments of both treatment quality and availability will have limited utility in improving the health impacts of drugs and drug policy.

Dr. Daliah Heller, Clinical Professor at CUNY School of Public Health, provided concrete steps towards the adoption of health indicators by explaining how the majority of Member States could enhance existing data sets to evaluate the health impacts of their drug policies. For example, by collecting information on the presence of drug use as a contributor to death, existing death data in the United States could assess the impacts of dug use in a population. Dr. Heller also emphasized the importance of accompanying health indicators for drug policy with benchmarks for scaling up effective interventions. Monitoring and setting benchmarks for health interventions related to drug use, such as sterile syringe coverage, could help define government funding priorities and highlight disparities to ensure equity in the scale up of health services.

After explaining that the separation between the international drug control and human rights regimes has created an environment of systemic human rights risk in drug policy, Ms. Genevieve Sander, Human Rights Research Analyst at Harm Reduction International, described a series of steps that could be used to ensure the adoption of human rights indicators into drug policy evaluations. First, the specific human rights relevant to drug policy, such as the right to life, must be identified. Human rights standards should then be reviewed to determine the key characteristics of each right in the context of drug policy. A relevant key characteristic of the right to life, for example, would be the use of the death penalty for drug offences. Next, in order to design comprehensive human rights indicators for drug policy, structural, process, and outcome indicators must be included. Structural indicators can be used to shed light on the intent of a Member State. For the right to life , these may include the ratification of international human rights treaties relevant to protecting this human right. Process indicators indicate complicity in human rights violations, and in the example of the right to life, could include the number of convicted people facing the death penalty for drug offences. Finally, a relevant outcome indicator in the context of the right to life is the number of executions for drug offences in the last 12 months. Ms. Sander noted that incorporating all three types of indicators helps to reveal connections between actions and human rights outcomes, and thereby provides information on accountability. Ms. Sander concluded her presentation by emphasizing that all Member States are bound by their obligation in the UN Charter to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. Adopting human rights indicators, targets, and benchmarks would allow Member States to better meet this obligation by reframing global priorities, focusing on more effective policies and interventions, and redirecting resources to where they are most needed.

Event attendees left with a greater understanding of the need to integrate scientific evidence into the development of a broader set of drug policy metrics, and were equipped with clear and demonstrable steps to better evaluate the multilayered impacts of drug policy on communities.



An Analysis of the Challenges Associated with the Globalisation of Ayahuasca

New report from ICEERS Foundation and TNI, Ayahuasca: From the Amazon to the Global Village

An Analysis of the Challenges Associated with the Globalisation of Ayahuasca

By Constanza Sanchez, Barcelona

Globalisation has facilitated cultural exchange between indigenous traditions and Western practices, which has led to a growing interest in the ritual, religious and therapeutic use of ayahuasca.
Indigenous peoples in the Amazon have used ayahuasca for centuries as a remedy for physical and psychological health, and to ensure the life and wellbeing of their communities. In the past two decades, the use of this decoction has expanded beyond Amazon indigenous spheres. Globalisation, and with it the contact between populations, has facilitated cultural exchange between indigenous traditions and Western practices, which has led to a growing interest in the ritual, religious and therapeutic use of ayahuasca.
People who participate in the sessions have a positive perception of its use; while most scientific research over the past decade supports the subsequent benefits attributed to it. But the increased use of ayahuasca has not been free from challenges, such as its excessive commercialisation in the Amazon, linked to ayahuasca tourism, or the exploitation of natural resources used for its preparation. Despite not being a controlled substance at the international level, and not banned in almost any national jurisdiction, in recent years there have been an extraordinary number of detentions and judicial prosecutions in Europe, the United States and Latin America for ayahuasca importation and use. This contradiction has produced a number of uncertainties regarding its legal and political status, which varies between countries.

This report, written by Constanza Sanchez and Jose Carlos Bouso, and jointly published by the ICEERS Foundation and the Transnational Institute, focuses on the political, legal and cultural challenges related to the globalisation of the use of ayahuasca, and frames issues related to psychoactive plant substances in the broader context of existing drug policies and the current drug policy reform debate.

Key Points

•The criminal prosecution of ayahuasca users is illegitimate, futile and must end.
•The trend to treat ayahuasca as a controlled substance is misguided and requires review. It cannot be considered as such simply because it contains a substance that is subject to control.
•Equating a complex cultural practice, such as the ritual use of ayahuasca, to a single element of the whole (the DMT contained in the drink) is extremely reductionist and misinformed.
•The promotion of scientific knowledge about ayahuasca in particular, and about psychoactive plants of traditional use in general, far from contradicting the spirit of the UN drug conventions, could even help safeguard the well-being and health of humankind.

Erratum (23 December 2015):
** In page 17, we claim: “In Canada in 2006, Santo Daime received government permission to use ayahuasca in its rituals, through being granted an exemption by the Ministry of Health in accordance with Section 56 of the Drugs and Controlled Substance Act”. However, right after this report was published, we were informed that, in fact, the applicants (Ceu do Montreal) had received notice that their application was approved ‘in principle’, but this was just a bureaucratic letter and not the final exemption approval from the Ministry of Health. In 2012 Ceu do Montreal’s exemption for ceremonial ayahuasca use was denied. This means there is no legal protection for any form of ayahuasca drinking in Canada today, although the new Canadian government is much more progressive on drug policy issues and this may involve changes on this area. The authors would like to thank Kenneth Tupper for this important update. We are working to fix this mistake in the final print version of the report.

View From the Ground: Bocas del Toro; Drugs in Paradise

By Alastair Smith, Panama

Following exploratory fieldwork in the rural coca growing fields of Colombia, GDPO followed the cocaine supply chain to Panama. Most recently, time spent on the Northern Caribbean coast soon revealed the permeation of drug trafficking into the already complex socioeconomic context that many perceive as paradise.


Paradise of Bocas del Toro (MandingA 2013)

First impressions of Bocas del Toro – the name of both the 7,000+ person settlement on Isla Colon, just off the north eastern seaboard of Panama, but also the wider surrounding Province – largely confirm its international reputation as an accessible tropical ‘paradise’. With sympathetic afternoon light, the final leg of the 1-hour flight from Panama City reveals aqua marine water lapping at golden sands backed by lush green forests. Once established in the area, other widely talked about attractions of Bocas quickly emerge. There is a wealth of outdoor activities. Many international tourists, largely backpackers, and domestic visitors come to enjoy the Caribbean Sea: to scuba dive and snorkel, surf the notorious waves of Playa Bluff, or to take things a little easier with sunbathing and guided tours to spot the charismatic wildlife.

Party goers in one of Bocas' bars open late into the morning

Party goers in one of Bocas’ bars open late into the morning (Taken by Author 2015)

Another attraction of Bocas del Toro for many, and particularly backpackers, is undoubtedly the opportunity to mix Salsa and Reggaeton music, with low cost national beers and regional rum cocktails, as they enjoy the party life offer on Isla Colon (primarily in BocasTown) and the surround islands. Many of the bars and clubs in Bocas town are right on the water: making it very possible to ‘live the dream’ of enjoying beers in a hammock, dancing off the alcohol, and when things get a little too hot back-flipping off the dock into the cooling sea.

In this hedonistic environment, it is seemingly easy to forget the volumes of boat traffic and not think about the dubious quality of the sea water while enjoying a midnight swim. Another undercurrent in the town is the availability cocaine and cannabis. Sellers freely mix in the nightlife with various degrees of subtly in communicating their offerings. During the day, it is unusual to walk the length of town without being offered ‘weed’ – sometimes as a follow up to the initial list proposal of taking a boat tours to the beach – although there is little menacing about time spent in Bocas, and disinterest is well-accepted by opportunistic sellers.

Part of the reason for the level of supply is the demand of international tourists and more permanent life style migrants willing to pay higher prices than local consumers. However, Bocas del Toro is also well supplied with drugs as one of the recognized points of refuge for traffickers making the journey up the EasternCoast from Colombia to North America

Originally founded as a settlement of concentrated population by foreign banana producers, the region remained disconnected from administration in Panama City due to a lack of a reliable road connection: and therefore, the centralized government administration has lacked a presence in many respects. The archipelago is also composed of some highly remote islands that fall well beyond almost all government services and authority: and as in many cases across the world, the lack of state institutions supports the trafficking of drugs.


View of coastal geography from the air (Author 2015)

Despite limited resources, local law enforcement officers in Bocas confirm that they have been involved in interdiction operations in partnership with central authorities and the US Coast Guard: furthermore, these operations have yielded high powerboats used by the traffickers that are then repurposed for local counter narcotics operations. Discussions with the local police support existing knowledge that traffickers use the inland water ways of the Panamanian coast to evade the authorities during the day, and then make their staged journeys under the cover of night (UNODC 2012). In some cases it is believed that small shipments of drugs are consolidated in Panama before being moved on (UNODC 2012). Local testimony also identified that during chases, traffickers will jettison quantities of drugs in attempts to bribe the police.

It is through a combination of these mechanisms that trafficked drugs enter the Bocas economy. The availability of drugs then provides relatively easy returns for those willing to become involved. This option is especially attractive so some due to the poor quality of education, high levels of poverty and general limitations on livelihood opportunities in the Bocas region. Despite Panama’s average national economic growth of 7.2% between 2001 and 2013, of the mainly indigenous population of the Bocas del Toro province, 25% are classified as poor and 11% as extremely poor (Omar and Moreno 2014). Many of these people live on subsistence agriculture and fishing on outer islands. There is therefore a potentially strong pull incentive to become involved in the distribution of drugs. In this case, as was found in Colombia, rural development will likely be as important an anti-trafficing policy as strengthening governance capacity for interdiction operations.

In conclusion, while the vast majority of visitors to Bocas del Toro find their expectations of fulfilled, the reality is that the international trafficking of drugs is playing into a complex socioeconomic situation, which many of the ‘poor’ permanent residents might well not accept as ‘paradise’. Again, genuine investment in enhancing the life opportunities of those currently motivated to support drugs distribution will likely contribute to a reduction in the global trade in narcotic drugs.


Omar, A. and V. Moreno ( 2014). Pobreza e Indigencia. Panama, Ministerio de Economia y Finanzas.

UNODC (2012). Cocaine from South America to the United States. Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean A Threat Assessment. Vienna, United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime.

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View From the Ground: Magical Journalism and the Chemical War

by Ross Eventon
Bogota, Colombia

After decades of studies demonstrating the inefficiency and the harmful effects, the environmental damage and the health problems, the Colombian government announced in June that it would be stopping aerial fumigation of illicit crops using the herbicide glyphosate. It has been an interesting and somewhat depressing experience to read the international commentary and analysis published since then. “The decision to suspend the fumigation program suggests that president Santos understands the necessity of promoting reforms not just at a global level, but also at home,” one analyst told the Spanish press in a typical formulation that manages to present three key misconceptions in one sentence: i) The decision was made by the Ministry of Health, invoking the precautionary principle which the constitutional court determined to be applicable following a World Health Organisation statement that glyphosate is carcinogenic to humans. The President had his hand forced: his only move was to put it to a vote and to recommend the resolution to suspend be passed. ii) The fumigation programme has not been suspended – it continues until October and then it is fumigation with glyphosate that will stop. iii) The decision doesn’t demonstrate a commitment to change. In fact the available evidence suggests the government is committed to the same policies, except slightly modified – possibly using a new herbicide, maybe switching to forced manual eradication instead.

The Man, The Myth

President Juan Manuel Santos, one analysis claimed recently, is “a champion of drug policy reform in the international arena”. The Santos administration’s policy of chemical warfare against its own population, to be continued openly through a ‘transition period’ lasting until October, has not, it seems, undercut a reputation achieved by force of rhetoric alone. The commitment to an economic model that worsens the issues at the core of illicit crop cultivation has also been deemed irrelevant by the international press and the drug policy community. In the drug policy literature it is repeated ad nauseam that general economic development is crucial if illicit cultivation is to be reduced, but, to my knowledge, not a single drug policy expert quoted in the international press drew the link between the Colombia-US Free Trade Agreement signed in 2011 and the spike in coca cultivation between 2013 and 2014. The predictions made by international NGOs before the signing of the FTA appear to have been correct: subsidised goods from the US are putting the squeeze on the incomes of some of the poorest people in the country, driving migration and illicit cultivation. The passing of the most important pro-narcotics policy in recent Colombia’s recent history and the government’s fanatical pursuit of an economic policy that exacerbates the problems at the core of cultivation does not, according the prevalent view among experts, undermine claims of concern with ‘counter-narcotics’.  In the same vein, a man in a white coat who stabs someone while offering them an aspirin is no doubt committed to medicine, but is perhaps “ill-informed”, “misguided”, and should reassess his “failing” methods (the analogous debate for commentators would be whether aspirin should be replaced with codeine? 50mg or 100mg?).

The disconnect between reality and reporting goes beyond drugs. As Defense Minister during the previous administration, Santos oversaw a rise in cases in which the military murdered innocent civilians in exchange for cash and promotions, and has since tried to ensure impunity for those responsible by passing reforms that would move cases to the notoriously biased military courts. Mass displacements have increased over the course of his presidency, and his administration passed the internationally celebrated Land Restitution Law, a policy so cynical it staggers belief, one that played on the hopes of millions of displaced families to achieve greater security for foreign investments and sent dozens of unprotected land restitution leaders to the slaughter in the process. Santos has deepened the exclusionary economic policies of his predecessor, but this “modern and decent” politician, quoting the UK Guardian, has done all this with a professionalism that breaks with the crass, blunt style of Uribe, and for this he has been showered with praise and hagiographies in the international press.

The past few months have provided typical examples of the duplicity. In May, the newsletter of the Colombian National Police published an article by Santos in which he claimed, contrary to the evidence, that “the country has been relatively successful” in the fight against narco-trafficking. He went on to ask, “What can we do going forward in our country?” and he answered: “In the first place – and in this there should be no doubt – we will continue directly combatting, with all the power of our police forces and the support of our military forces, the criminal organisations that profit from narco-trafficking and its environment of illegality.” Mentioned also was the now familiar talk of a need to improve the situation for poor campesinos – a cruel comment, given the economic policies being pursued – but reading the piece one would not assume that drug policy in Colombia had been too far off-base. That same month Santos spoke at the International Conference of Drug Control, held in the coastal city of Cartagena. There, in front of law enforcement officials from around the world, he declared the necessity to move away from the War on Drugs policies – which have relied overwhelmingly on the police and military forces – and acknowledged that under the current approach “we have to recognise that we haven’t won.” This rhetorical flexibility, coupled with the predilection of commentators to value words over actions, has bought the political space for draconian policies at home.

Anatomy of a Failed Policy

Inside the country, commentary has been far more critical and informed. Compare, for example, the lazy and ubiquitous references in the international press to fumigation as a “failed” counter-narcotics policy, a demonstration of the “lunacy” of US and Colombian policy makers, with the words of the respected local journalist and author, Alfred Bravo, published a few weeks ago in El Espectador, Colombia’s second largest daily:

“The aspersion – as they refer to it in order to disguise the aggression – is also a sister weapon of paramilitarism, one which seeks to displace farmers and settlers. The thesis of “taking the water from the fish” – to remove the support of the campesinos from the guerilla – is the fundamental strategy of a war against an insurrection. The paramilitaries did it with massacres. Fumigation does it by ruining crops, not just coca but also the produce that allow farmers to feed themselves: yuca, plantain, rice. Moreover, areas that have nothing to do with coca are also devastated as the poison ‘drifts’, which is to say, it is dispersed by the wind. Viewed correctly, fumigation is a new means to remove farmers from colonised areas they have settled in search of a livelihood; Catatumbo, Meta, Guaviare, Magdalena Medio, Perijá, San Lucas, Urabá, bajo Cauca. Terrorised, the settlers have been expelled from their original lands. … What the paramilitaries do on one side, fumigation completes on the other.”

These comments go a way in explaining not just the survival but the expansion of what is almost universally referred to as a failing, even counter-productive policy. On grounds of logic, the use of fumigation, and Washington’s attempts to apply it elsewhere, suggests it produces favourable outcomes. It is not difficult to discern what they might be. The expected, consistent results of forced crop eradication are the same around the world: displacement and impoverishment of the local population. In 1992, at the beginning of a new US-backed fumigation drive, the head of the Colombian Police explained that fumigation had been effective because by creating economic hardship it “obligated farmers to return to their place of origin”. And he went on to explicitly frame fumigation in counter-insurgency terms: “Up to now 1040 hectares have been fumigated [which means] the guerrilla groups operating in the zone have therefore not received a little over 5 billion pesos.” The Colombian counter-insurgency strategy backed by Washington is predicated on “the premise that those living in conflict areas are part of the enemy, simply because of where they live,” quoting Amnesty. Such a useful policy is not going to be sacrificed simply because it fails to produce its publicly stated goals. And with the actual aims in mind, the fact that fumigation happens to be harmful and indiscriminate is not a problem but a virtue.

There are other benefits. Across the country, where the chemical’s task has been successfully carried out, mining and agrobusiness operations have moved in to take over of the land and begin operations. For these groups, and for the wealthy individuals who are able to purchase land at rock-bottom prices, fumigation has not been a failure. Nor has it failed for DynCorp, the private military services company contracted to carry out the policy. Nor do US officials consider it a failure. Plan Colombia is, according to officials, the jewel in the South American policy crown. Discussing Colombia, Pentagon spokesperson James Gregory once described the ‘counter-narcotics’ policies there as among the US government’s “most successful and cost-effective programs”, adding that, “By any reasonable assessment, the U.S. has received ample strategic national security benefits in return for its investments in this area.” With the correct understanding of national security in mind the comment is no doubt correct: Colombia remains Washington’s last bastion in a region increasingly asserting its independence, and is committed to the desired economic policies, those that preference foreign capital over local needs. If even the most minimal investigation is carried out it is the analyses that are “lunacy”. The policies make sense, given the objectives and the values.

Attacking the Problematic Poor

Fumigation’s longevity in Colombia is not just a reflection of goals being achieved, but of the nature of the Colombian state and its attitude towards the rural poor. Rural communities, on the blunt end of the state’s economic policies for decades, are a thorn in the side of the Colombian government. Those who decide to grow coca are particularly hated. They are not the invisible poor, they are the problematic poor: they don’t just ask for things like schools, hospitals, paved roads, and markets for their products, they take matters into their own hands: they have the gall to cultivate a durable crop with a stable market in order to feed their children. Were these impoverished families to behave as the Colombian state wants them to – abandon their land, relocate to the luxury of the urban slums, or perhaps seek work with a monoculture enterprise – the matter could be amicably and peaceably resolved. As things stand, it has been beholden on Bogota and Washington to attack them with chemical weapons until the lesson is properly absorbed. The slums rimming the major cities are a testimony to the success of the dual chemical-paramilitary attack.

The persistence of fumigation also demonstrates the utility of hiring private contractors to carry out criminal state policies. With limits imposed by the US Congress on the number of military personnel allowed in-country, DynCorp has carved out a role as a significant actor in Colombia’s civil war: employees pilot fumigation and observation planes and helicopter gunships, take part in search and rescue operations, train local forces, and maintain vital materiel. Were US military personnel behind the controls, the Colombian civil war could technically be considered internationalised, and International Humanitarian Law would be applicable. Given the nature of DynCorp’s role and the effects of fumigation, there are suggestions they could be acting in violation of IHL, but agreements between the Colombian and US governments have granted impunity to foreign military forces and contractors alike.

It is useful then that DynCorp’s operations are for all intents and purposes clandestine, akin to employing local paramilitary groups: contractors are accountable to no-one, protected from prosecution, and expendable. “If a [contractor] is shot wearing blue jeans,” remarked one PMSC lobbyist, “it’s page fifty-three of their hometown newspaper.” In an illustrative case back in 2003, a court in the Colombian department of Cudinamarca, responding to complaints brought by victims of fumigation, ordered the policy be stopped pending tests of the chemical being sprayed. The decision was overturned by an appellate court, which ruled that “Colombia should be able to defend itself against the guerillas and paramilitaries,” in the words of a legal analysis published by the Open Society Foundations. The appellate court “took the view that the state was entitled to continue its actions because the growth of coca plants was a threat to state security.” The decision has obvious implications for claims that DynCorp is doing counter-narcotics work in Colombia.

In order to carry out a policy that is damaging to people and the environment and a possible violation of IHL it makes sense to outsource operations to individuals who can act above the law and below the radar. From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror, policy makers are fully cognisant of the value of outsourcing. The US and the UK, the primary employers, have refused to sign UN conventions which could theoretically limit the use of mercenaries in international affairs. Instead, the post-2001 bonanza for private contractors is continuing a pace: the Pentagon recently announced it would be soliciting applications for a $3 billion contract to undertake ‘counter-narcotics’ and ‘counter-terror’ operations across the globe.

For the US government, “counter-narcotics” has always provided provided a reliable, convenient and flexible euphemism – for militarisation, repression, social control, counter-insurgency. And so it makes sense that, when responding to criticisms that DynCorp employees in Colombia were no more than mercenaries, a US State Department official should resort to the well-worn explanation: “Mercenaries are used in war,” he replied. “This is counter-narcotics.”
See also The Chemicals Don’t Discriminate, Le Monde Diplomatique